Book and Illustration by Anne Hart
How to Write Personal History Essays and Vignettes: Text, Audio, or Video
© by Anne Hart 2004
Use personal or biographical experiences as examples when you write your
essay. Begin by using specific examples taken from your personal experience,
personal history, or biographical resources.
Start with a general statement. Then relate the general to your specific personal
experience. You don’t have to only write about yourself. You can write about someone else as long as you have accurate historical facts about that person,
and you state your credible resources.
Here’s an example of two opening sentences that state the general and then
give the specific personal experience. “Mom’s a space garbage woman. She
Let’s analyze all the different parts of an informed argument essay. By analyzing
the result in depth instead of only skimming for breadth, you will be able to write concretely from different points of view.
You’ll learn how to construct an essay from bare bones—from its concept.
You start with a concept. Then you add at least three specific examples to your
concept until it develops into a mold. A mold is a form, skeleton or foundation.
Think of concept as conception. Think of mold as form or skeleton. Think of awning as the outer skin that covers the whole essay and animates it
into lively writing.
You don’t want your essay to be flat writing. You want writing that is animated,
alive, and able to move, motivate, or inspire readers. Finally, you cover
the mold with an awning.
The mold is your pit, skeleton or foundation. Your mold contains your insight, foresight, and hindsight. It has the pitfalls to avoid and the highlights. You need to put flesh on its bones. Then you need to cover your mold with an awning.
You need to include or protect that concept and mold or form by
including it under this awning of a larger topic or category. The awning holds everything together. It’s your category under which all your related topics fall. That’s what the technique of organizing your essay or personal history is all about.
In other words, concept equals form plus details. Story equals form plus details. That’s the math formula for writing an essay if you’d like to put it into a logical equation of critical thinking. C = Fo + De. That’s what you need to remember about writing an essay. Your concept is composed of your form (mold, foundation, or skeleton) and details. A concept isn’t an idea. It’s the application of your idea.
A concept is what your story is about. Your concept is imbedded in your
story. A story can mean your personal history or any other story or anecdote in
your essay, or any highlight of your life or specific life experience. A concept
also can be a turning point such as rites of passage or take place at any stage of
When writing the informed argument, you will be able to give examples backed up with resources. That’s what makes an essay great—knowing what examples to put into the essay at which specific points in time.
Gone will be general, vague, or sweeping statements. You may wish to start planning your essay by analyzing and discussing the parts that chronologically go into the essay. That’s how you organize essays in a linear fashion.
Take an essay apart just as you would take a clock or computer apart, and put it back together. Now all the parts fit and work. Taking apart an essay helps you understand how to plan and write your own essay-writing assignments or personal history as a time capsule.
Here’s how to take an essay apart. To analyze an essay in depth, you break
the essay down into its six parts: statement-of-position, description, argumentation, exposition, supplementation and evaluation. These parts of an essay also are explained in the book titled, The Informed Argument. (ISBN:
For more ideas, if you're looking for action verbs, you also can look at some action verbs in another book, 801 Action Verbs for Communicators. (ISBN: 0-595-31911-4).
Before you even get to the expressive part of argumentation, you have to
state your position and describe it by using specific examples. Then you get to
the informed argument in the middle of your essay.
After you’ve finished arguing logically using critical thinking and your
resources, you use exposition. Then you use supplementation, and finally evaluation.
To practice writing personal history essays in text or on video, define and analyze the words ‘exposition’ and ‘supplementation.’ Use exposition and supplementation in at least one sentence each as an example of how you would use it in your essay. Don’t stick to only what is familiar.
My dictionary defines ‘exposition’ as “a careful setting out of the facts or
ideas involved in something.” The principal themes are presented first in a
‘music’ exposition. Apply it now to an essay. Present your principal themes
first in your personal history. Supplementation means adding to your work to
improve or complete it.
The goal of an essay is to analyze your informed argument in depth. That’s
why there are six parts to an essay. Knowing what those six parts are as well as
showing examples give you the experience you need to plan and organize your
essay. The result is that once you have organized your plan in writing, the
essay almost writes itself.
I keep an old saying in front of me when I write. It’s about wanting you to
know that I care. You probably want to know that I care more than you care
what I know. It’s a great saying to remind me why I’m writing how-to books,
personal history, writing strategies, plays, and novels…because I care, and
because everyone has a life story of great value.
How do you interpret family history as creative writing, and how do you
interpret ancestry-related DNA tests and/or family history/genealogy records or even favorite family recipes and diaries?
* * *
Here Are 50 Strategies On How to Write Your Life Story or A Biography
Start with a Vignette….Link the Vignettes…Dramatize….and Novelize.
1. Contact anyone’s family members to gain permission to write their family
2. Write memoirs of various clerical or other religious and/or social leaders.
3. Write two to four dozen memorials for houses of worship. Put these
memorials in a larger book of memoirs for various organizations, religious
groups, houses of worship, or professional associations.
4. Find a model for your biographies.
5. These could be based on a book of vocational biographies or centered on
any other aspect of life such as religious or community service as well as
6. Read the various awards biographies written and presented for wellknown
7. Focus on the accomplishments that stand out of these people or of you if
you’re writing an autobiography.
8. Use oral eulogies as your foundation. You’ll find many oral eulogies that
were used in memorial services.
9. Consult professionals who conduct memorial services to look at their
eulogies written for a variety of people and presented at memorial services.
10. Stick to the length of a eulogy. You’ll find the average eulogy runs about
1,500 to 1,800 words. That’ is what’s known as magazine article average
length. Most magazines ask for feature articles of about 1,500 words. So
your eulogies should run that same length.
11. When read aloud, they make up the eulogy part of a memorial service. At
250 to 300 words double-spaced per page, it comes to about five-to-seven
pages and is read aloud in about seven to 10 minutes.
12. Take each 1,500-1,800 word eulogy and focus on the highlights, significant
events, and turning points. Cut the eulogy down to one page of
printed magazine-style format.
13. Keep the eulogy typeset so that it all fits on one page of printed material
in 12 point font.
14. You can package one-page eulogies for memorial services or include a
small photo on the page if space permits.
15. Cut the eulogy down to 50-70 words, average 60 words for an oral presentation
using PowerPoint software for a computer-based slide show
complete with photos.
16. Put the PowerPoint show on a CD or DVD. Use the shorter eulogy
focusing on significant points in the person’s life. The purpose of a PowerPoint
eulogy is to show the person lived a purposeful life—a designdriven,
goal-driven life with purpose and concrete meaning in relation to
17. Write biographies, memoirs, and autobiographies by focusing on the
highlights of someone’s life or your own life story. Turn personal histories
into life stories that you can launch in the media. You need to make a life
story salable. It is already valuable.
18. Read autobiographies in print. Compare the autobiographies written by
ghostwriters to those written by the authors of autobiographies who write
about their own experiences.
19. Read biographies and compare them to autobiographies written by ghost
writers and those written as diary novels in first person or as genre novels
in first person. Biographies are written in third person.
20. If you write a biography in third person keep objective. If you write an
autobiography in first person you can be subjective or objective if you
bring in other characters and present all sides of the story equally.
21. If you’re writing a biography, whose memories are you using? If you write
an autobiography, you can rely on your own memory. Writing in the third
person means research verifying facts and fact-checking your resources for
credibility. How reliable is the information?
22. Use oral history transcriptions, personal history, videos, audio tapes, and
interviews for a biography. You can use the same for an autobiography by
checking for all sides of the story with people involved in the life
story—either biography or autobiography.
23. With personal histories and oral histories, be sure to obtain letters of permission
and to note what is authorized. Celebrities in the public eye are
written about with unauthorized or authorized biographies. However,
people in private life who are not celebrities may not want their name or
photo in anyone’s book. Make sure everything you have is in writing in
regard to permissions and what information is permitted to be put into
your book or article, especially working with people who are not celebrities
and those who are.
24. When interviewing, get written approval of what was said on tape. Let
the person see the questions beforehand to be able to have time to recall
an answer with accuracy regarding facts and dates or times of various
events. Give peoples’ memories a chance to recall memories before the
25. Write autobiographies in the first person in genre or diary format. You
can also dramatize the autobiography in a play or skit first and then flesh
it out into novel format. Another alternative is to focus only on the highlights,
events, and turning points in various stages of life.
26. Ghost-written autobiographies usually are written in the first person. A
ghost-writer may have a byline such as “as told to” or “with____(name of
27. Condense experience in small chunks or paragraphs. Use the time-capsule
approach. Use vignettes. Focus on how people solved problems or
obtained results or reached a goal. Find out whether the person wants you
to mention a life purpose. Emphasize how the person overcame challenges
28. In an autobiography, instead of dumping your pain on others because it
may be therapeutic for you, try to be objective and focus on what you
learned from your choices and decisions and how what you learned transformed
your life. Be inspirational and nurturing to the reader. Tell how
you learned, what you learned, how you rose above your problems, and
how you transcended the trouble. Focus on commitment and your relationship
to others and what your purpose is in writing the autobiography.
29. Stay objective. Focus on turning points, highlights, and significant events
and their relationship to how you learned from your mistakes or choices
and rose above the trouble. Decide what your life purpose is and what
points you want to emphasize. If you want to hide facts, decide why and
what good it will do the reader. Stay away from angry writing and focus
instead on depth and analysis.
30. Don’t use humor if it puts someone down, including you. Don’t put
someone down to pick yourself up.
31. Make sure your writing doesn’t sound like self-worship or ego soothing.
Don’t be modest, but don’t shock readers either.
32. Before you write your salable autobiography, find out where the market is
and who will buy it. If there is no market, use print-on-demand publishing
and select a title most likely to be commercial or help market your
book. At least you can give copies to friends and family members. Or selfpublish
with a printer. Another way to go is to self-publish using printon-
demand software yourself. Then distribute via advertising or the
Internet and your Web site.
33. You’d be surprised at how many people would be interested in your life
story if it were packaged, designed, and promoted. So launch your life
story in the media before you publish. Write your life story as a novel or
play or both. Every life story has value. I believe all life stories are salable.
The hard part is finding the correct niche market for your experiences. So
focus on what you are and what you did so people with similar interests,
hobbies, or occupations may learn from you. Market to people who are in
the same situation as you are.
34. Divide your biography into the 12 stages of life. Then pare down those 12
significant events or turning points and rites of passage into four quarters—
age birth to 25 (young adult), age 26-50 (mature adult), age 51-75
(creative adult) and age 76-100 (golden years of self fulfillment).
35. Start with a vignette focusing on each of the most important events and
turning points of your life. Do the same in a biography, only writing in
third person. For your own life story, write in first person.
8 Writing 7-Minute Inspirational Life Experience Vignettes
36. What’s important for the reader to know about your life in relation to
social history and the dates in time? For example, what did you do during
the various wars?
37. Keep a journal or diary, and record events as they happen. Focus on how
you relate to social history. Write in your diary each day. Use the Web
and create a diary or Web blog.
38. If you keep a daily journal, and make sure it is saved on a computer disk or
similar electronic diary, you can put the whole journal together and create
a book or play online or have a digital recording of your life. It’s your time
capsule in virtual reality.
39. A daily journal will keep memories fresh in your mind when you cut down
to significant events for a book. You want to recall significant events in
detail with resources.
40. If you’re young, keep a daily journal on a computer disk and keep transferring
it from one technology to the next as technology evolves. Keep a
spare saved and up on the Web so you can download it anytime. Use some
of the free Web site space available to people online.
41. If you write a book when you’re older, at least you’ll have all the youthful
memories in detail where you can transfer the notes from one computer to
another or upload from your disk to a browser for publication with a
42. Keep writing short vignettes. Include all the details as soon as possible
after the event occurs. When you are ready to write a book, you’ll be able
to look back rationally and from a much more objective and mature perspective
on the details. Then you can decide what to put into a salable life
story that’s about to be published.
43. Don’t listen to people who tell you that if you are not famous, your life
story is only fit for your own family because no one else will buy it. Fiddlede-
44. There are events that happened to you or experiences in your line of work,
travel, parenting, research, or lifestyle that people want to read because
you have experiences to share.
45. Find a niche market of people with similar interests and market your life
story to them.
46. Try out the waters first with a short vignette in magazines. If the magazines
buy your vignette, your slice of life story, then you can write a book.
Can you imagine if all the travelers and archaeologists, parenting experts
and teachers didn’t value their life story to the point that they thought it
was fit only for relatives (who may be the only ones not interested in reading
it because they already know your life story). In fact, your relatives
may be angry at you for spilling the details to the public.
47. Instead, focus on that part of your life where you made a choice or decision
with which everyone can identify. Inspire and motivate readers. If
your experience is universal, we can all identify with it. We all go through
the same stages of life.
48. So let us know how you overcame your obstacles, solved problems, and
rose above the keen competition.
49. Or if you didn’t, let us know how you learned to live with and enjoy your
life. Readers want nourishment. If your life isn’t about making a difference
in the world, then write about how you handled what we all go
50. We want to read about the joy of life, and your design-driven life full of
purpose, meaning, and inspiration. We want to read about the universal
in you with which we can identify. Most of all readers want information
in a life story or personal history from which we can make our own
choices. Keep your life story as a novel to 12 to 24 short chapters. Write in
short, readable chunks.